Our Kids Are Tougher Than We Think

Sometimes your child doesn’t need you in the way you think he does, sometimes he’s more capable than you thought.

“Look on the bright side.” It’s a cliché that can make my blood boil.

At first glance, this is a story about looking on the bright side. Moms of kids with special needs, like me, have lots of those. Really, though, I’m trying to tell a different story, about how—if we pay attention—our children tell us when they’re ready to grow up a little, when they don’t need so much mothering as we’ve been doing. Special needs or not.

My son takes a medication that requires twice yearly, at least, blood draws. It’s not something I’d sign up for, drawing blood from a squeamish child with poor emotional and impulse control, but it’s a matter of safety and it must be done.

So, it wasn’t the first time my son had had blood drawn. This time the phlebotomist started by folding her arms over her white lab coat, her ample waist and bosom straining the seams. She lowered her chin slightly and looked at my 7-year-old with squinty eyes. “James, now you listen to me. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” Her name, Catina, was embroidered on a breast pocket. She grasped the tiny needle with red-brown fingernails that glinted under the fluorescent lights.

It was the first thing she’d said to James since we’d entered the room five minutes before, the first time she’d even acknowledged his presence. Up until then, she’d ignored his rapid-fire questions: “Is this chair meant to trap me? What if you plunge the needle into the top of my arm? Does one arm have more blood in it than the other one? Why did we have to come here? Why can’t Dr. Wuttke do this himself?” James’ growling stomach punctuated the last question; he’d had nothing to eat or drink since the night before.

While James’ voice volume rose and his body tensed, Catina read from a script about payment, asked for my insurance card, our doctor’s orders. I signed a form authorizing the use of my credit card. Then she sat down heavily at the counter and wielded her needle, her empty vials.

I looked around Catina’s desk at the lab for a sticker, a lollipop, anything. All I could see were needles, vials, and forms. Hadn’t we made an appointment for a “Pediatric Specialty Blood Draw?” This blood draw was turning out to be special, but not in the way I had expected.

It’s true, you sometimes have to get kids to do things against their will. Some kids more than others. I’ve always provided a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

But this time Catina was in charge, not me.

So let me stop here and clarify something. We live in New Orleans, Catina is African-American, and James and I are Caucasian. These details are important, because of certain cultural differences that exist in our city, for better or worse. In brief, if Catina conforms to stereotypes, she thinks that I’m a hypervigilant, overinvolved mother who doesn’t set limits. And if I conform to stereotypes, I think Catina is a yeller who doesn’t take kids’ feelings into account.

“So, what’s it going to be, James?” Catina asked, pursing her lips and tilting her chin. “You going to cooperate, or are we going to do this the hard way this time?” A muscular woman in scrubs hovered in the hallway, peering at James.

“The easy way,” said James, holding out his arm.

James was quiet as we drove to get a milkshake after the blood draw. I felt giddy, like I’d just watched him walk a tightrope. “That Catina was a funny lady,” I said.

“Yeah,” James said, chuckling mannishly.

I’m not going to recommend Catina to my friends. But, by letting her do things her way, not mine, I let James show me how much he was capable of.

That night, he resisted the toothbrush as usual.

“Man, we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” I said.

James burst out laughing.

Lynn Adams is a child psychologist turned at-home mother. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared on Salon.com and Brain, Child.

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